Voices: Abandoned by their Soviet ‘peacekeepers’, Armenia is crying out for our help

Ethnic Armenians have been fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh (Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters)
Ethnic Armenians have been fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh (Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters)

What is happening now, at an astonishing rate, in Nagorno-Karabakh is effectively ethnic cleansing on a mass scale.

A formerly autonomous province of Azerbaijan, populated overwhelmingly by people of Armenian ancestry, Nagorno-Karabakh has simply emptied itself out, after a short clash between the rival Caucasian states. It has created another humanitarian crisis and another wave of refugees in a world with no shortage of either.

Karabakh has led a precarious existence since the end of the Soviet Union, which once encompassed Armenia and Azerbaijan and mostly smothered such tensions. With the Russians gone, the area has been the subject of a succession of bloody struggles for supremacy over the succeeding decades. Before the latest outbreak of hostilities, about 120,000 of Karabakh’s residents remained, from around 200,000 at the end of the Soviet era in 1991.

By September, the population had dwindled to 65,000. Now it is thought that somewhere between only 50 and 1,000 ethnic Armenians remain. It is an exodus of historic proportions. It has not been achieved, quite, at the end of a gun or by gangs clearing families from their homesteads; but folk memories of past persecutions have forced the people to flee for their lives, carrying as much of their belongings as their cars will hold.

The proximate cause of the mass movement was the proclamation by the Azeri government that the province will no longer enjoy its “autonomous” status – a fatal breach of trust. As a self-governing oblast in Soviet times and after, its status as an Orthodox Armenian region within Azerbaijan at least gave it some minimal legal protractions against fear of domination by the Turkic and Muslim population that surrounded it.

As an exclave, it was always vulnerable to menace, and such fears sometimes turned to reality, but the people could cling to the hope that the international community, and the powers that interfered in the region so freely, Russia and Turkey, might honour it. Now it has gone.

Nagorno-Karabakh has been anything but stable for many years, and often close to disaster. Now, for all the tragically wrong reasons, the central cause of the volatility – the people of the province – has literally melted away across the borders on the move to Armenia. Western nations often complain about the scale of irregular migration and the numbers of refugees seeking asylum; well, here are about 100,000 hopeless souls arriving over a matter of days in a country, Armenia, which is poor and ill-equipped to accommodate them.

For a whole variety of reasons, the West has a vested interest in providing sufficient humanitarian aid to prevent the present crisis provoking further trouble. There are also geopolitical reasons to offer Armenia friendly assistance. Traditionally, Russia was the ally and protector of Armenia and its minority population within Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani governments looked to Ankara for support.

To an extent, and like other proxy wars such as the Yemeni conflict played out between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the fortunes of Armenia and Azerbaijan mirrored those of their regional superpower mentors. Yet since a soft revolution in Yerevan a few years ago, Armenia has tilted towards the West.

Vladimir Putin has grown more impatient towards his former loyal junior partner, and basically acquiesced in Azeri aggressions, despite having brokered a peace accord a few years ago. Now President Putin finds himself having to deal with more pressing issues than Armenia.

This does represent for the West a rare opportunity to acquire influence in the region, protect Armenia and its people from further abuses, and, in partnership with Turkey, ensure that the war in Ukraine doesn’t somehow spill over into the Caucasus, and potentially drag Georgia and Turkey itself into a wider conflict.

One immediate priority, which would also help ease delivery of aid, is the opening of the border between Armenia and Turkey.

In the words of one Armenian crossing the border into a safer but uncertain future, for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, “it’s over, and everything is lost”. It is now too late for the West to save their original homeland, and Nagorno-Karabakh no longer exists in the meaningful sense it once did. It is not too late to save its hungry and homeless former inhabitants.